Mark Russell at Rose City Comic Con

Mark Russell is branching out. In the past several months the writer has had two new creator-owned titles debut from publishers with whom he’s never worked before. Deadbox, his series with artist Benjamin Tiesa from Vault Comics, follows a college-bound woman named Penny who finds herself having difficulty leaving Lost Turkey, the small town where she grew up, after her father falls ill, and the haunted DVD rental machine that’s the main source of entertainment in the town — and a major source of its problems. For AWA Studios, Russell and Mike Deodato Jr. have teamed for Not All Robots, a satirical series in which humans become reliant on robots for income after artificial intelligence makes humanity obsolete. In addition to those two titles, Russell is also teaming with co-writer Bryce Ingman and artist Peter Krause for My Bad, a new “superhero spoof” series coming later this year from AHOY Comics, for which Russell is writing the adventures of The Chandelier, a hero who wears a chandelier on his head.

The Beat chatted with Mark Russell at last month’s Rose City Comic Con about his numerous creator-owned projects, as well as the upcoming One-Star Squadron series with Steve Lieber for DC Comics.

Joe Grunenwald: Deadbox is your first book from Vault. Also your first horror book. Is there anything that’s surprised you about writing a straight horror book?

Mark Russell: Funnily enough, it’s doesn’t feel like a straight horror book to me. It feels like a memoir that turned into a horror story. It’s not really about my life, but it’s about sort of the world I grew up in, and my critique of it, my letter to my upbringing, which really opened up a lot of sort of dark memories. And also, I was able to put [it] in this metaphorical context, which naturally lent itself to horror. I’m not sure what that says about me, but that’s where it went.

Grunenwald: Yeah, I know you’ve said that it’s a personal story for you, and that the setting of the series is similar to where you came from. Do you share qualities with Penny in the series?

Russell: Yes, it’s very much how I felt. How she feels is sort of me imbuing the story with how I felt growing up in an area where I felt like I just did not belong and I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with what I was being taught. I didn’t always but as I got older, as I got into high school and college, I began to be exposed to people who didn’t believe the same way, and to ideas and facts that were not consistent with what I had been raised to believe. I began to feel like she does — the unease of a world being peeled away for what it really is. Finding that what you’ve been taught was a safe and idyllic place is anything but.

Grunenwald: The setting is really interesting. You recognize it in places that, well, largely you drive through to get to other places.

Russell: It’s also about my love of movies. I still think probably the best job in the world is to write straight-to-Redbox movies, because there’s absolutely no pressure to do something really good. You can just write the stories you want no matter how crazy or out there they are, and you still get a budget, you still get paid, they still get made, which is kind of the way I approach comics. These are almost like straight-to-Redbox movies, and I can just tell the story I want without having a bunch of focus groups and movie executives looking over my shoulder telling me that this will never fly with, you know, 18-to-35 audience. So yeah, it’s really kind of my chance to address that, how important movies were to me growing up. And it’s not only as an escape, but as a metaphor for the world around me, and to talk about storytelling and why it is not just this abstract thing we do, but it’s fundamentally part of our lives.

Grunenwald: I’m curious about the role that class plays in Deadbox. I know studies have shown that with Redboxes, typically, the people that are using those are lower income, maybe bargain hunters type. Does class play a role in the series?

Russell: It wasn’t so much class-based as I wanted it to be about sort of rural, semi-rural Americans, somehow taking pride in the way they’ve been sort of jerked around and screwed by society, and about how they feel somehow proud of their misery in many of their lives. I’m not saying everybody who lives in rural America is miserable, but I feel like, in a lot of ways, that was what I was taught as a kid. Your suffering, you know, the fact that life is hard for you, is something you should be proud of. It gives you a horse in the Oppression Olympics. And it’s something I just realized is, how they keep you in line is by making you feel like, this is your pride. ‘I had to work three jobs, 60 hours a week without health insurance, and that’s what makes me a decent American.’ As opposed to thinking more deeply about whether or not this makes any sense in a country that is daily extracting more wealth out of its landmass than any other place on Earth. So it’s largely about that in terms of class consciousness. It’s not so much about class as just, internalized oppression.

Grunenwald: Gotcha. Moving on to Not All Robots next. I know you’ve said that series was sort of inspired by the #MeToo movement and the ill-advised #NotAllMen response to that. I also see elements of the Black Lives Matter movement in it a little bit, and I was curious if that was intentional, or if that’s just an unfortunate coincidence.

Russell: The metaphor really grew from that initial starting point of being about the #NotAllMen, misplaced anger, to being about misplaced anger in general — about people thinking that if Black people are sick of being murdered by the police, that that somehow costs them something, that white people should somehow feel like if Black people are being treated with dignity and basic respect on the streets, that that somehow cost them. And also [it became] about how I think the source of these resentments are really, that what we really resent, what we ought to be resenting, is the fact that we’ve been reduced to these economic roles and these functions. The robots [are] out there just basically being used for their workplace privilege, for their ability to earn a living. That’s really the source of the resentment, but they’re not taking it out on Omnirobotics Corporation, they’re taking it out on the people they live with, the humans around them, who are in the same sort of morass as they are. So it really became a larger metaphor for our misplaced anger, and how that sort of fuels toxic masculinity and white nationalism and things like that, and all its expressions in our modern world,

Grunenwald: Maybe it’s a spoiler, but do you see a possibility where the robots and the humans could potentially figure it out and fight back?

Russell: Yeah, I think that, in the end, the robots and the humans have to live together, but it’s about them, particularly the robots, cleansing themselves of this radicalizing resentment of people who did them no wrong. And that’s kind of what, I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but the kind of where it’s heading.

Grunenwald: Are you concerned personally about the singularity and the rise of artificial intelligence?

Russell: I am concerned about it just because we haven’t seemed to be able to figure out distribution of wealth on this planet very well. So I’m concerned that if we continue to go forward with the Jeff Bezos model of wealth ownership, where ‘whoever gets their first gets all the cookies, and nobody else gets anything,’ then yes, it would be very concerning. Because whoever owns the mechanism of the singularity, whoever gets there first — even though it’s seems inevitable, it’s an idea where if one person doesn’t have it, somebody shortly thereafter will — whoever gets there first is going to control basically all economic production on the planet. And the rest of us will just basically be refugees, will be serfs living on their plantation. And so I’m very concerned about what the singularity would mean in a context like that.

If we can somehow figure it out and, you know, begin giving people a universal basic income, begin fighting climate change, and begin creating more of a livability standard where there’s a minimum standard of livability for people on this planet, and the products of automation and artificial intelligence are there to support that, then I think the singularity will be a good thing. We can [then] devote our lives to creativity and our emotional contacts with each other. What this incredible technological and economic progress should be freeing us up to do.

Grunenwald: I also wanted to ask about My Bad, your new AHOY Comics series. You may have mentioned it during a Comic-Con panel last year, that it started out as it being a backup story just by Bryce Ingman and Peter Krause.

Russell: Yeah, originally it was gonna be a backup story to Second Coming. But we like Bryce’s writing and Peter’s artwork so much. We really thought this needs to be a series.

Grunenwald: So how did you come to be the co-writer on that book?

Russell: Well, because they had this initial part. It was designed to be a backup series, sort of like an addendum to Second Coming. The idea was, it was originally going to exist in the Second Coming universe. But then we thought, ‘Well, no, this is actually, the flavor’s a little different. It’s actually kind of a different universe.’ So I thought, ‘What if I write a hero to complement the villain character that Bryce wrote, to make up the fact that it’s never gonna be in the same universe with Sunstar & Jesus.’ So that’s kind of where we got the idea that that’s the second half of the series.

And I think it really makes it unique, in that it’s a story told from two completely different vantage points, one from a hero [and] one from a villain, but it’s really about their failures and their vanities. There’s the hero character, he’s like a Batman sort of vigilante hero, whose family owns a lamp fortune, [called] The Chandelier, which is terrible moniker for a superhero. But at some point, he realizes that really the only difference between us and the villains [is that] the villains realize that this is all about vanity. And that’s kind of the crux of the series. If there is a mission statement, that would be it.

Grunenwald: I was going to ask why he’s The Chandelier.

Russell: There’s very few things you can do to make life interesting when you’re a lamp billionaire.

Grunenwald: Well, and his costume design is insane.

Russell: It’s like the worst costume design for [crime-fighting]. It’s got this giant chandelier over his head, right where everybody’s gonna be trying to punch him. But yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. I like how it’s turning out. Peter’s also doing the artwork for my half of the story, so it looks pretty seamless. And yeah, I love it. I love his pages. I love it.

Grunenwald: I also wanted to ask, you’ve teased a couple of DC projects that you’re working on. And I know Steve Lieber has shared some images that look fantastic. Can you say anything about those at this point?

Russell: Yes, it’s basically about some D-list superheroes who have to use an app, sort of like an Uber-like app, to book gigs to do birthday parties and sort of cameo appearances. They’ll leave a message on your phone for 100 bucks. And it’s about the lives of those superheroes that live on the margins of superherodom.

Grunenwald: Sort of sounds sort of like building on Wonder Twins a little bit.

Russell: Yeah, it’s like the people who weren’t even good enough to be the Wonder Twins, are not able to get a gig with the Hall of Justice. Red Tornado, who is actually a legitimate superhero, [is] sort of the manager of the place, and so he’s there. He really tries to help these heroes maximize their potential and find gigs even though most of them are fading fast

Grunenwald: There’s a panel that Steve shared that’s G.I. Robot at a kids’ birthday party. I saw that and said, ‘what is this book?’

Russell: Yeah, that’s the other thing, too. A lot of them get gigs they’re not really suited for, because people just want them because of their name and because they’re a superhero with some cachet, you know, 20 years ago. And they basically feel like circus elephants, just being trotted out.

Deadbox #2 is due out next Wednesday, October 13th. Not All Robots #3, and a second printing of Deadbox #1, are both set for release the following Wednesday, October 20th. My Bad #1 is due out in November, and One-Star Squadron #1 is out in December.